“Kids Falling Through the Cracks” of Illinois’ Understaffed Child Abuse Hotline

Illinois’ child abuse hotline is plagued with staffing shortages and delayed responses, according to an investigative report by the Chicago Tribune. The investigation reveals that the hotline’s performance has worsened in several key areas:

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services [DCFS] took messages for the majority of its more than 236,000 calls logged over an 11-month period ending May 31.

The percentage of callers who reach a specialist on the crucial first attempt has plummeted over the last 11 years. It’s now less than 40 percent, compared with nearly 70 percent in 2001, the newspaper determined.

While DCFS does not track average callback times, hotline workers, police officers, teachers and doctors told the Tribune it can take several hours during peak periods for callers to get a response. Experts say such delays mean children may be left in dangerous situations longer.

According to workers, the hotline’s problems are tied to chronic understaffing:

“When school was in, there were times when we were running five to six hours behind,” said Kim Abner, a 14-year specialist. “We were working a lot of overtime. It was nothing to stay two to three hours after your shift ended to try to help your co-workers get caught up.”

“It’s horrible,” [Ed] Cotton [who helped set up the hotline in 1980] said of the Tribune’s findings. “That’s not a hotline, in my opinion.”

The hotline, which is one of the busiest in the nation, currently has 80 call-floor workers, short of the 95 it needs to be considered fully staffed. Staffing shortages were cited in a report on a 1-year-old girl’s death in February 2010:

Alma Perez was fatally beaten and suffocated 16 days after the hotline accepted a report, records show. The original hotline caller spoke Spanish and hung up because a bilingual specialist wasn’t available to speak to her, as is required, according to a DCFS inspector general’s report.

Although DCFS has a near perfect record on initiating an investigation once a report is taken, experts worry about the crucial hours than can pass while a caller waits for the hotline to respond to their message.

Lauren Baugh, an elementary school counselor, told the Tribune she rarely made it through to a specialist in the estimated 100 times she has called the hotline over the past two years.

Faced with such delays, staff members in Illinois’ Edward Hospital have begun admitting children with suspicious injuries overnight rather than release them before DCFS arrives.

“We realize they’re overwhelmed, but it makes us feel helpless,” said nurse Sheri Hey, an assistant ER manager. “There’s a lot of kids falling through the cracks.”